Floods in NE Australia Devastating Families

By: msnbc.com and wire reports
By: msnbc.com and wire reports

BRISBANE, Australia — A father left behind atop a sinking car as rescuers airlifted his wife and child to safety. A 13-year-old boy who insisted his 10-year-old brother be plucked out of the raging waters before him.

The dramatic tales of rescue and tragedy have put a human face to the misery caused by the flooding in Australia, a disaster that has left at least 22 dead and more than 40 missing.

Television viewers around the world watched in horror as a family of three perched on top of a white vehicle as it slowly dropped into the murky, debris-laden water near Grantham.

"The mother and child have been located and are safe, the father is unfortunately one of those on the missing person list," Queensland Premier Anna Bligh told reporters, acknowledging the high level of interest in the family's fate and the "great feeling of helplessness" many felt in watching the drama unfold.

The Brisbane Times named the father as James Perry.

Friends told the newspaper he had recently left his job at a horse racing track in South Korea to take a new post in the rural Queensland town of Toowoomba so he could be closer to his family.

A media helicopter had captured the family's ordeal on Monday; rescuers were able to pick up Perry's wife, Jenny, and son, Ted, but when they returned for him, there was no sign of him or the car, the Times report said.

'Please save my mum'

In another dramatic rescue in Toowoomba, Jordan Rice, 13, begged rescuers to take his younger brother, Blake, after floodwaters swept up his family's white Mercedes,

The Australian reported. Blake survived, the report said, but the rope Jordan and the boys' 43-year-old mother Donna Rice were clinging to broke, and the pair floated downstream.

"He loved his family and he would do anything for them," Jordan's brother Kyle, 16, told The Australian.

"He was real shy with everyone else; wouldn't say a word. But courage kicked in, and he would rather his little brother would live."

According to one of the rescuers from the scene, Blake Rice shared his older brother's selfless spirit.

"He was just pleading with me: 'Please save my mum,' just back, and I could see his face," Warren McErlean told The Australian.

For weeks, the flooding had been a slow-motion disaster, devastating wide swaths of farmland and small towns.

On Monday, the crisis took a sudden, violent turn, with a cloudburst sending a raging torrent down the Lockyer Valley west of Brisbane.

After tearing a deadly path across the northeast, floodwaters poured into the empty downtown of Australia's third-largest city Wednesday, swamping neighborhoods in what could be Brisbane's most devastating floods in a century.

The surging, muddy waters reached the tops of traffic lights in some parts of Brisbane, and the city's mayor said at least 20,000 homes were in danger of being inundated.

At least 22 people have died and more than 40 were missing across Australia's northeastern state of Queensland since drenching rains that began in November sent swollen rivers spilling over their banks, flooding an area larger than France and Germany combined.

Brisbane, the state capital with a population of 2 million, is the latest city to face down the waters, and officials expect the death toll to rise.

'Very serious natural disaster'

On Wednesday, Brisbane residents who had spent two days preparing took cover on higher ground while others scrambled to move their possessions to the top floors of their homes. Some stacked furniture on their roofs.

The Brisbane River was expected to reach its highest point on Thursday.

After days of bad news in which figures were constantly being revised, the Bureau of Meteorology late Wednesday delivered a small and rare positive forecast — the floodwaters would crest about a foot lower than earlier thought.

If correct, the new forecast meant the waters would not reach the depth of 1974 floods that swept the city.

Bligh said the news was welcome, but of little comfort.

"This is still a major event, the city is much bigger, much more populated and has many parts under flood that didn't even exist in 1974," she said.

"We are still looking at an event which will cripple parts of our city."

"We are in the grip of a very serious natural disaster," Bligh said, predicting almost 20,000 homes could be flooded at the river's peak.

"Brisbane will go to sleep tonight and wake up to scenes many will never have seen before in their lives," she warned.

The dragged-out crisis escalated when a violent storm sent a 26-foot, fast-moving torrent — described as an "inland instant tsunami" — crashing through Toowoomba and smaller towns to the west of Brisbane on Monday.

Twelve people were killed in that flash flood.

Late Wednesday, Bligh said the number of missing had been revised down to 43.

"This is a truly dire set of circumstances," Prime Minister Julia Gillard said.

Rapidly rising water

The Brisbane River broke its banks on Tuesday and was continuing its rise Wednesday — partly controlled by a huge dam upstream that has had its floodgates opened because it is brimming after weeks of rain across the state.

Water levels were expected to stay at peak levels until at least Saturday, but many people won't be able to access their homes for several days beyond that, Bligh said.

The flooding is shaping up to become the nation's most expensive disaster, with an estimated price tag of at least $5 billion.

The relentless waters have shut down Queensland state's crucial coal industry and ruined crops across vast swaths of farmland.

In Brisbane, thousands of homes and businesses were deserted as swirling floodwaters rose in and around the city, forcing residents to flee with a few possessions to higher ground and to evacuation centers crowded with more than 3,500 people.

"If you start to see water in your yard, get out. Take your family and get to safety. This water could rise very, very quickly," said state premier Bligh.

Some Brisbane residents tried to carry on as normal, with early morning joggers running even though parts of their routes were underwater.

Others were distraught.

"This is my whole life, everything is gone. I never thought it would get this bad," said Kim Hung, manager of the Salt 'n' Pepper catering business, as two friends floated a coffee machine toward higher ground.

Saving what they can

Strangers formed human chains, sometimes in chest high water, to pass family possessions from flooded homes to dry land and into cars and trucks and safety.

Raw sewage began spilling into the river and creeks, prompting authorities to warn of heightened disease risk as spillage from damaged treatment works polluted the floodwaters.

Boats torn from their moorings floated down the rising river along with massive amounts of debris.

A popular waterside restaurant's pontoon was swept away and floated downstream.

Officials said they would probably have to sink a barge that serves as an entertainment venue, to stop it from breaking free and becoming a floating torpedo.

Officials opened three more evacuation centers on Wednesday, and Newman said there was now room for 16,000 people to take shelter.

Officials have urged people to get to higher ground and keep off the streets unless absolutely necessary.

Energex, the city's main power company, said it would switch off electricity to some parts of the city starting Wednesday as a precaution against electrocution.

Almost 70,000 homes were without power across Queensland by Wednesday afternoon, Bligh said.

"I know that this is going to be very difficult for people," Bligh said. "Can I just stress: Electricity and water do not mix. We would have catastrophic situations if we didn't shut down power."

Darren Marchant spent all day moving furniture and other household goods to the top floor of his home, near the river in the low-lying Brisbane suburb of Yeronga, which is expected to be inundated.

He and two neighbors watched in awe as dozens of expensive boats and pontoons drifted past.

"We were watching all kinds of debris floating down the river — one of the (neighbor's) pontoons just floated off," he said Wednesday.

"It was amazing."

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